CRIMES AGAINST NURTURE

CLAIMING A RARE DISORDER MADE JAN BROOKS AN UNFIT MOTHER, THE STATE TOOK HER DAUGHTER AWAY. THE DIAGNOSIS WOULDN'T STAND.

Medical records show that, contrary to what she says now, Rimsza had, in fact, recommended that Ashley be removed from her mother's care, based on the Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy diagnosis. And Rimsza wasn't recanting. In its June 11, 1993, report to the court, DES requested that, on Rimsza's recommendation, Ashley be held in custody for 30 to 90 days, pending a second opinion and psychological workup of Brooks. (New Times obtained files on the case from Brooks.)

Laura Knaperak says the ordeal was "heartbreaking." And as for Brooks, whom Knaperak trusts with her own kids, she adds, "She's not your perfect person. She's not Betty Crocker, homemaker. But she was clean. . . . She cared about her daughter. She had good parenting skills, I thought."

So do other people accused of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. And just because Ashley is doing well now doesn't mean her mother doesn't--or didn't at one point--suffer from the condition.

Schreier, the expert from Oakland, warns, "The overwhelming preponderance is still to believe the mother. I am sure that as it becomes more known, we will see cases like this where we are never going to know."

They call Arizona the "do-over" state, and like so many single moms, Jan Brooks moved here for a fresh start. She was born and raised in the small English town of Hull, and her parents divorced when she was 2. She lived with her mother and younger sister, seldom seeing her dad, a carpenter.

Life was lower-middle-class, supplemented by the government. She always dreamed of becoming a social worker, even though she didn't do well in school and the kids teased her, mostly because of her eyes--one's hazel, the other brown.

At 18, Brooks left for America. She settled in the Bronx, and found work as a nanny. She met Walter Brooks--four years her senior, training to be a police officer--through a friend. They married and had two children, Katie and Daniel (now 8 and 6, respectively).

Walter became a cop. Brooks cared for the kids and worked off and on as a nanny, then at a restaurant. The marriage soured, and with divorce looming, Brooks began to date a man she met at the restaurant.

The divorce was final in 1990. Brooks had her boyfriend's baby in 1991, but says she never planned to stay with him. For a while, she lived alone with her three children, but the New York winters were rough.

So she took six-month-old Ashley on a vacation to Arizona to visit a friend, and two months later, they returned for good. Katie and Daniel stayed behind with Walter, but Brooks always planned to get custody. (Walter now has full custody; Brooks has visiting rights. Reached by phone in New York, Walter expresses bitterness toward Brooks for leaving, and says Katie and Daniel have behavior problems as a result. However, he says neither of the older children experienced strange or prolonged illnesses under Brooks' care.)

From the beginning, Ashley was a difficult baby. By the time she was a month old, she had a cold. "She cried all the time. She was just real colicky," Brooks recalls. Ashley had persistent ear infections, which exacerbated her eating problem.

From their first days in Mesa, it was back and forth to the doctor for the ear infections, the croup and what the medical profession calls "failure to thrive." Ashley wasn't gaining enough weight.

When it came time for Ashley to eat solids, she refused. She chewed her food and spit it out, played with it or just ignored it. Brooks panicked; at this rate, Ashley would starve to death. Finally, the doctors suggested Brooks place the baby at the county hospital, because Brooks had no money.

From September through November 1992, Ashley was a patient at Maricopa Medical Center. She gained weight because she was fed through a tube placed through her nose and down into her stomach. She also had a hernia operation.

Brooks brought Ashley home, with instructions to return regularly for appointments at Maricopa Medical Center's child-development clinic. She was told to cut back on the amount of nourishment Ashley received through tube feedings, with the hope that Ashley would develop an appetite for solids.

The tube frightened Brooks, but she learned how to feed Ashley through it. Ashley still wouldn't eat solids, however, and lost weight. Dr. Sheila Gahagan, the pediatrician in charge of the growth clinic, was concerned. She advised Brooks to place Ashley in voluntary foster care. (Although Brooks signed a release granting Gahagan permission to speak about Ashley's care, Gahagan refused.)

Brooks balked. She didn't want to lose her baby. She was desperate. She started calling local social-service agencies, thinking, "They [doctors] didn't help me. Who's going to help me? How do I feed this kid?"

Enter Barbara Hopkins, a pediatric nurse with a knack for getting babies to eat and a knack for getting her way with CPS.

When a CPS social worker paid Jan and Ashley Brooks a visit in January 1993, Hopkins and Laura Knaperak sat in to lend Brooks some support.

Hopkins and Knaperak had never met Brooks, but both instantly liked her. And Brooks liked them.

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